“Ethical Amnesia”: Science Explains Hillary Clinton!

-hillary-clinton email“Ethical Amnesia.” This is the hypothesized malady that some researchers believe could explain instances of repeated unethical behavior by individuals prone to wrongful conduct. The theory is that painful memories of their previous unethical actions are suppressed unconsciously by the habitually unethical, preventing them from learning to be good.

I know, I know. It sounds like a lot of hooey.

Psychologists Maryam Kouchaki from Northwestern University and Francesca Gino from Harvard University designed nine separate studies with about 2,100 participants to test how selective their memories of past unethical acts were. They found that ethical actions (like playing a game fairly) were remembered more clearly than their unethical counterparts (like cheating at the same game).

Barry Bonds, for example, was unable to remember his days playing baseball for the Giants, after steroids had pumped him up like the Michelin Man, but was very clear on his days with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when he was lean, mean, and PED-free.

I’m kidding. Back to the scientists…

“We speculated… that people are limiting the retrieval of memories that threaten their moral self-concept, and that is the reason we see pervasive ordinary unethical behavioors,”  Dr. Kouchaki said in an interview.

The scientists asked subjects to write about their past conduct, ethical and unethical; they set up  experiments where subjects detected an opportunity to cheat and then were asked to recall it later, and they had subjects read stories describing ethical and unethical behavior by others. The results of all the tests, say the researchers, indicated the existence of ethical amnesia. Our memories of our own wrongdoing seem to become less vivid as time goes on, facilitating more dishonesty.

Kouchaki and Gino state in their paper’s conclusions:

“After they behave unethically, individuals’ memories of their actions become more obfuscated over time because of the psychological distress and discomfort caused by such misdeeds. This unethical amnesia and the alleviation of such dissonance over time are followed by more dishonesty subsequently in the future.”

Color me dubious, at least that this research tells us anything we don’t know already without having to use “ethical amnesia” to explain it. Gallup polls annually show that most people think they are the most ethical people they know, and Ethics Alarms has noted repeatedly how unethical conduct is rationalized away by “Self-Validating Virtue,” #14 on the list, which is the human tendency to engage in circular logic holding that since we are good people,  what we do can’t be bad; or that seemingly unethical acts are justified because anyone else would do the same thing (#1, “Everybody Does it”), or because its for a good cause (#13, “The Saint’s Excuse”), or through many other tools of self-deception.

Despite the headline, which was the first thing that leaped into my head when I read about this research, I  don’t really think we need this research to explain Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s constant deceptions and unethical maneuvers ( here’s another one, from yesterday’s news) remind me of a memorable exchange in “Dirty Harry,” in which law and order zealot cop Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood, of course) tells his chief that the villain, a serial killer, has to be dealt with quickly. “You’re crazy if you think you’re heard the last of this guy,” he says. “He’ll kill again.”

“How do you know?” asks the chief.

“Because he likes it,” says Harry.


10 thoughts on ““Ethical Amnesia”: Science Explains Hillary Clinton!

  1. Looks to me like the scientists are just trying to whitewash something we’ve always known for a long time: People will rationalize away their misbehavior oftentimes believing their own lies they tell themselves. The scientists are merely trying to take responsibility away from the actual miscreants themselves.

  2. Which is one of the reasons I no longer practice psychology. I am a strong believer in taking responsibility for your own behavior. There are theories too numerous to mention out there that, simply put, say “It’s not your fault. Something beyond your control made you do that.”

  3. Unless you’re Catholic, in which case Catholic guilt dogs you for the rest of your miserable life.

    Just kidding. But no actually not. The Catholic guilt thing is a Catholic version of an urban legend, or maybe a myth, but as with most myths, there is some truth in it. Catholics actually do run the spectrum from feeling constantly guilty to constantly absolved. (I know individuals all along this spectrum and even at the 2 extremes.) Most Catholics, and I daresay most others as well, have at least one thing that they feel guilty about from their past (or present, I guess). Those who are not able to get past it and function actually do benefit from a spiritually directed psychotherapy. Not absolved from responsibility. Just from the smothering burden of guilt.

      • True, I wouldn’t want to live in a world with no guilt, shame, or regret. Those things are kind of important for becoming a better person. In fact the only guilt I can even see as a bad thing would be the unmerited, illogical kind (blaming yourself for things you had no reasonable control over, etc.)

        • Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing, unless you become so over-burdened with it that you can’t function and you never accept that you are forgiven. I actually know people like that.

          • I’m working on a short story about this. “I believe in the forgiveness of sin” is an interesting tenet.

            Of course we try to forget about our screw ups. You need a Ph.D. and a study to figure that out?

            • Then of course there’s always Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim.” These “scientists” could have read that for free if they’d checked it out of their library.

  4. If a study participant is playing a game with clearly defined rules they will see any cheating they do as unethical so may want to forget it to reduce their feeling of guilt . However there are some things they may not recognise as unethical such as telling a ‘white lie’ because it is for the person’s own good.
    Politicians are constantly telling ‘white lies’ for the peoples own good even though the people may not recognize it as such, so they don’t think that lying to the people is unethical.

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